Manny Sokol , of Oceanside, a NBA referee who was known for his showmanship on the court during the 1960s and ’70s, died Aug. 14 from congestive heart failure. He was 92.
Sokol was born on March 16, 1929, in Brooklyn to an immigrant family from Poland. Sokol shared a small apartment with his five siblings then: Irving, Sheldon, Ida, Willy, and Jack, the last of whom is still going at 94.
An athlete, Sokol excelled as a member of the basketball team at Thomas Jefferson High School. He was accepted to several colleges but had to stay home to help support his family. For the next few years, he worked several jobs, including one at a bottling company in Mineola.
Sokol joined the Army during the Korean War, attaining the rank of sergeant and often acting as an athlete, coach and umpire during his unit’s downtime. In the mid-1950s, Sokol took up wrestling and refereeing basketball for a time to make extra money and was eventually noticed for the latter by the still-young National Basketball Association .
In 1965, Sokol went straight from refereeing local games to NBA contests. According to his daughter, Debbie, her father’s first NBA assignment was on November 9, 1965—the night of the infamous Blackout of 1965, when 30 million people from Vermont to Manhattan lost their power. Debbie Sokol said her father walked from Brooklyn, across the Brooklyn Bridge, all the way to Madison Square Garden only to find the arena closed.
One of the highlights of Sokol’s career was officiating the 1972 NBA All-Star Game in Los Angeles, where he shared the floor with legendary players like Walt Frazier, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Wilt Chamberlin. His trademark over-the-top mannerisms can still be seen on YouTube, where the game has been archived.
“He as very dramatic,” Debbie Sokol said of her father. “He as a showman, and he liked to make the calls extremely colorful.”
Sokol refereed NBA games until 1977, when heart issues flared up, but that was not the end of his basketball journey. Sokol soldiered on, officiating games for the Harlem Wizards, a Globetrotters-like team that focused on entertainment rather than competition. Sokol traveled the world with the team, including the Philippines. There, Sokol taught local referees more about the game.
During the 1960s and ’70s, Sokol also refereed in the Puerto Rican basketball league, Baloncesto Superior Nacional, where Debbie said the family were treated like celebrities. “Because he was in the NBA, we were treated like royalty,” Debbie said. “We were taken everywhere, from pineapple plantations to the Bacardi rum factory—where they would give us bottles and bottles of the rum.
“In Puerto Rico, that’s when I saw my father,” Debbie said. “He had a very positive outlook on life. The glass was always half full.” She said she saw that positivity in him, despite having to be escorted out of arenas by police when home teams lost.
In 2014, Manny Sokol was inducted into the New York City Basketball Hall of Fame for his contributions to the sport.
Theresa Azzaretto, activities director at the Oceanside Care Center, where Sokol had lived since 2017, described him as an outgoing, high-spirited man who always thanked the staff. “Manny had this light about him,” Azzaretto said. “Sometimes it’s hard to be in a nursing home, but he tried to make the best of every situation in that home. When he passed away, it was like a candle had gone out.”
Even after losing his wife Frances in 1997, Sokol remained his usual high-energy, poitive self.
Debbie Sokol said the nursing home staff called it “the end of an era.” Manny Sokol is survived by his son Glenn, daughter Debbie, son-in-law Michael, and grandson David.